Since news of COVID-19, which was first detected in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, exploded onto the scene, there has been one thing that remains constant: Each day we learn more and more about the virus.
That includes its potential symptoms, which often seem run-of-the-mill. Take a sore throat—you might be tempted to shrug off this symptom, but even as one of the less commonly known ones (the most prevalent are fever, dry cough, tiredness, and shortness of breath), it may still indicate infection.
In fact, the World Health Organization notes that 13.9 percent of COVID-19 patients have presented with sore throats.
“Some patients that have experienced sore throat during COVID-19 have reported that it feels like a super dry throat,” says Leo Nissola, M.D., a scientist and investigator at the COVID-19 National Convalescence Plasma Project as well as advisor at COVIDActNow. “And the medical reports show redness in the throat, without bacterial infection, like strep, for example.”
Is a Sore Throat a Symptom of COVID-19?
That’s a tricky question.
There are numerous causes for inflammation of the inner lining of the throat, including allergies, upper respiratory infections (both viral and bacterial), acid reflux, and even throat cancer.
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Not to mention this: “There is still so much we don’t know about COVID-19 and what we do know has been evolving over time,” says Inna Husain, M.D., an assistant professor in otolaryngology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
“At this time, all upper respiratory illnesses are COVID-19 until proven otherwise.” What’s more, an April review in the European Archives of Oto-Rhino-Laryngology revealed that ear, nose, and throat symptoms may precede the development of severe cases of COVID-19.
That said, “there is nothing intrinsically different between a sore throat brought on by COVID-19 and one brought on by any other upper respiratory infections,” says Michael Lerner, M.D., a Yale Medicine laryngologist and assistant professor of otolaryngology at Yale School of Medicine.
What, Exactly, Does a “Sore Throat” Mean?
On a basic level, you will experience some sort of discomfort in your throat. More specifically, you’ll feel pain when swallowing that can be achy, sharp, or even create a burning sensation.
A sore throat may also be accompanied by a runny nose, nasal congestion, cough, or fever. Other symptoms, according to Alexandra Kreps, M.D., an internist at Tru Whole Care, include “changes in your voice, swollen lymph nodes in your neck or jaw area, and when looking at your tonsils in a mirror they may be red and irritated or could have white patches or pus if severely infected.”
However, Dr. Nissola, says “it is more likely to be a COVID-related sore throat if there are more symptoms, such as fever and malaise.”
A good rule of thumb: “If your sore throat is also accompanied with fever or cough, be suspicious. If your sore throat comes after an episode of heartburn likely its related to reflux. If it is accompanied by sino-nasal congestion, runny nose, and sneezing, it may be allergies,” says Dr. Husain.
What Should You Do If You Have a Sore Throat?
How you treat your sore throat symptoms should really consider the root cause.
Generally, though, Dr. Husain recommends hydration (drinking water or tea), steam inhalation, and lozenges containing lubricants such as honey. Pain relievers such as Tylenol can also help with discomfort.
Adds Dr. Lerner: If sore throat is from excessive coughing, you can address it though cough suppressants. For nasal congestion, which causes mouth breathing and dryness, try humidification or hydration through nasal saline or irrigation. “Patients that have COVID-19, should be cautious of nasal spread and do this in a safe way, so as not to expose others to aerosols and droplets that may occur from these types of treatments,” he says.
If sore throat is due to allergies, on the other hand, pretreatment with antihistamine prior to allergy season or known allergen exposure— in other wards take an allergy pill— can be helpful, says Dr. Husain.
Last, if the sore throat is caused by reflux, following an anti-reflux diet may lead to a favorable outcome. “I would encourage people to eliminate anything heavily acidic or citrus as this can irritate the lining of the throat. Hard foods such as crackers or chips can also be irritating,” says Dr. Husain, who notes that if a sore throat is present, avoiding coffee or alcohol as well as reducing smoking cigarettes, smoking marijuana, and avoiding vaping is recommended.
While none of these things will necessarily “cure” a sore throat, they can help with some of the discomfort associated with it.
Should You Get Tested for COVID-19 if You Have a Sore Throat?
“For people with nuisance, acute onset symptoms, or any other listed by the Centers for Disease Control as potentially a symptom for COVID, it is important to talk to your healthcare provider to help determine if testing is appropriate,” says Dr. Learner.
Overall, to help keep COVID-19 or any infection or illness at bay, wash your hands frequently, wear a mask and engage in social-distancing.
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